Chris Cottman was already a husband and father of three when he took a job in his mid-20s as a sales associate at Blue Sole Shoes.
Still, Cottman said he was a hothead who thrived on having the last word. He was that West Philly dude who sought to prove his many, many points by popping off rudely at the mouth — his self-worth was tied up in being right all the time.
However, in the almost year he's been working with Blue Sole's owner, Steve Jamison, he's not only become a walking encyclopedia on the ins and outs of high-end shoes, he's beginning to understand the value of listening. It's about being of service not just to his customers, but to his community, too.
"Steve says I take a lot of things personally," said Cottman, 28, now a father of four, one of three young adults who helps Jamison sell shoes. Cottman was so inspired by his boss he joined Jamison's gym and mimics his daily routine.
"Everything is not that serious. I have more of an understanding now why it's important to talk it out and give people chances," Cottman said. "I'm not always ready to cut someone off and give them the cold shoulder. I'm more of the man I want to be."
Jamison was among the first Chestnut Street retailers to help usher in this era of haberdashery with men's bold footwear. Among his sharp shoes are offerings from Italian menswear brands like Harris color-blocked double monks, John Richmond suede slip-ons, and Jo Ghost alligator tie-ups. Stylish men regularly check out Jamison's orange walls for the latest in striped and polka dot socks. Tateossian beaded bracelets and cuff links sparkle in glass cases.
But even more significant than the brands Jamison carries is that in his 10 years in business, he's made it a point to hire young people who otherwise might not be exposed to influential men like Philadelphia director of commerce Harold T. Epps or Good Day Philadelphia host Mike Jerrick, who come to Blue Sole Shoes to shop. In the meantime, Jamison has created a space for young people to build character.
I've been around fashion for a long time, and such proximity to handsome things isn't usually where people tap into their authenticity, or, frankly, learn to be kind.
"I feel like I'm growing into my best self," said Jake Herbert, 25, another of Jamison's employees. Herbert started his job at Blue Sole Shoes five months ago. Before that, he worked in construction in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
"It's nice to feel like I'm growing instead of being stuck inside of a box," Herbert said.
Why does Jamison focus on working with young people? They keep him current, keep his Instagram feed updated, and are willing to take chances. Not to mention, they intuitively know what's hot.
But then he becomes more reflective. Jamison grew up in the Nicetown neighborhood in the 1960s and '70s. It was a rough area, where parents were more worried about keeping a roof over their children's heads than helping them develop interpersonal skills to succeed in the mainstream.
"I didn't know how unprepared I was," Jamison said, choking back tears. "I had to create a facade so I would be accepted by people. I remember walking through Center City, looking at stores in amazement and then getting on the subway to go home and there were people around me selling drugs."
Jamison's mom worked for an insurance company and his dad was a sergeant-at-arms in City Hall. They split when he was in elementary school, and Jamison, his sister, and his mother moved into one bedroom in his grandmother's house.
"Our couch was sitting on bricks, and there was a table propped against a corner missing a leg," Jamison said. "We struggled. It was painful. It was hard."
It was around that time, however, that Jamison discovered the power of fashion. He perused his uncle's GQ magazine. When Jamison was about 9, his mom bought him a pair of cream-and-brown Pierre Cardin shoes.
"I got such a reaction," Jamison said. "From that moment, I knew at some point I wanted to open my own shoe store."
He graduated from Parkway High School and, fortunately, he said, was accepted to the University of Pittsburgh. (He didn't know he should apply to more than one school.) He majored in administrative justice and minored in Spanish — part of an original plan that included working in Miami as a bilingual attorney — and he learned how poor he was.
"I was surrounded by kids who had their own computers who didn't worry about anything," Jamison said. "I started to see there was a big difference between someone who goes to college and someone who was taught how to go to college."
He did not go to law school when he graduated. Instead, he moved home and worked for a year at longtime local clothier Wayne Edwards. After leaving there, he took a job at Bottino, where he spent 16 years working as a top seller, traveling to Europe to buy shoes. He developed confidence and fortitude and slowly came out of his shell to become a businessman in his own right. In 2006, Bottino owner Fran Bednarczyk closed the store, and Jamison decided it was time for him to open a shop.
"I worked so hard to get to that place," Jamison said. "Then I realized once I got here I had to do more. I had to grow and keep being consistent."
He spent his first few years polishing his own glass every day. He didn't have any help. Eventually, he hired a part-timer and a full-timer. Both young people. This year, thanks to a pretty solid, made-to-measure menswear market, he's hired three people.
"I may not have all the answers," said Jamison, who lives in Abington with his wife and 16-year-old daughter. "But I'm damned sure I can offer these young people something."
On any given day, there is lively banter in the store. When the crew isn't telling shoppers all about a shoe's designer, its materials, and features, Jamison is leading his crew in team-building exercises.
Recently, they had a chance to play owner for the day: They opened and closed the store, assigned tasks, decided what music played in the store, made sure the stockroom was clean, and took care of the scheduling.
Chloe Finklestein-Richardson, 23, has worked for Jamison for a little more than three years, so she's been there the longest. Still, she found herself frustrated when she made mistakes (like when she forgot to schedule someone to close the store) and when things didn't go as planned.
"Ultimately, I had to learn to trust my decisions," Finklestein-Richardson said. "And I had to fix things quickly. There is no shame in making a mistake."